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Is It Only Mothers, Not All Women, Who Need Social Safety Nets?


India is swept up in a growing “maternalization” trend: the federal government is offering cash-transfer programs to pregnant women to improve maternal health, sidelining other safety-net programs for women. ADAM JONES/CREATIVE COMMONS

Social policy in developing countries provides crucial assistance to women, but evidence shows that it is increasingly being limited to women who are mothers. India is a vivid case in point.

Associating women with children and families is hardly new in society. What is surprising, however, is how much recent social policy has embraced and reinforced this association, funneling large sums of money into programs for mothers at the expense of programs furthering women’s socioeconomic empowerment and autonomy.

What has also been sidelined — or is entirely nonexistent — are efforts to encourage men’s equal contribution to caregiving and childrearing at home.

Consider, for instance, cash-transfer programs such as Prospera in Latin America. Although widely celebrated for improving children’s health and educational results, many such programs operate on the assumption that mothers hold primary responsibility for child care. Accordingly, they disburse cash to mothers only, not fathers, on condition that their children attend school and get regular health checkups.

India’s huge Janani Suraksha Yojana, or Mother Protection Program, is another major example. Modeled after Latin American programs, it seeks to improve maternal health by giving cash assistance to pregnant women who give birth in health facilities. Women’s receipt of social benefits is contingent on their status as mothers.

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The Indian program, which serves more than 10 million women a year and has received an annual allocation of about $280 million in recent years, far outstrips most other social policies for women in its size and financing. But it was not always so.

Thirty years ago, the idea of cash for pregnant mothers was just a sideshow to an important women’s empowerment proposal in the 1989 electoral platform of the Indian National Congress party. Called the Indira Mahila Yojana, or Indira Women’s Program, it promised to overhaul social policy and make unprecedented investments in women’s socioeconomic advances by promoting their entrepreneurship, employment, education and social mobilization.

The program was intended to support women’s autonomy regardless of their marital or parental status. It was trumpeted as the cornerstone of a new progressive and rights-based approach to social policy.

Today, however, that program is defunct after a short, underresourced life of little consequence, and it is the pregnant mothers program that has become one of India’s most generously funded plans for women and one of the largest cash-transfer programs in the world in the number of beneficiaries.

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The pro-motherhood trend, or “maternalization,” of social policy can also be seen in the overall character of social programming and expenditure for women in India. Since the late 1980s, the total inflation-adjusted spending by the federal government on programs designed exclusively for adult women (including women-specific spending on programs assisting both women and their children) has prioritized mothers.

As a result, “maternalist” programs, which provide maternal health care and other benefits to mothers, have grown relative to nonmaternalist programs, which seek women’s advancement through initiatives for microcredit, job training, educational assistance, public leadership training and public safety.

In 2013-2014, India’s maternalist expenditure was three times greater than nonmaternalist expenditure.

The stark and growing divergence between maternalist and nonmaternalist programs is also apparent in spending per program. A sizeable amount of funding is concentrated in a few large maternalist programs and a much smaller sum is spread thinly across many more nonmaternalist programs, leaving the latter with limited resources and reach.

As India’s female labor force participation rate has plummeted to 27 percent, a share that is among the lowest in the world, the weak investment in women’s nonmaternalist roles is striking.

In 2013-2014, India’s nonmaternalist programs received less than a 10th of the funding of maternalist programs, on average. Source: Government of India budget records.

What has caused this shift toward maternalism? Although domestic factors undoubtedly contribute to this trend wherever it occurs, a common driver across countries may be found in the international community’s emphasis on maternal health as a key development goal for women. We do not have to look much further than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to illustrate this pattern.

As many experts have noted, the eight MDGs introduced at the turn of this century incorporated two goals that are explicitly gendered: MDG 3, which called for educational parity between boys and girls, and MDG 5, which promoted better maternal health. Only the latter goal related to adult women. So adult women appeared in the MDGs only as mothers.

Improved maternal health is a worthy objective, and given that the maternal mortality goal proved to be the worst performer of all MDGs by some measures, the international community’s attention to it is understandable. Yet motherhood is only one of women’s roles, and for most women, pregnancy accounts for no more than a fraction of their lifespans. Social protection contingent on maternity status thus fails to provide what most women need during most of their lives. A safety net cannot get more patchy than this.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Prakirti Nangia recently completed a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Is It Only Mothers, Not All Women, Who Need Social Safety Nets?
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